Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Competing Histories

It might make for a more informed reading experience if you brush up on your 20th century Irish history before reading the novel The Sacred Scripture by Sebastian Barry. But even if you know nothing about blue shirts or the battle for a Free State, I think you will feel rewarded for the investment of your time with this story. (Isn’t that a commentary on our 21st century lives that we think of time in terms of investment and reward?)

Due to its decrepit physical condition from years of neglect, Roscommon Mental Hospital is scheduled for demolition to be replaced by a modern Asylum that, it is hoped, will function as its name indicates. But there will not be room in the new facility for all of the current residents. Dr. Grene, the senior psychiatrist, must determine who among the patients (perhaps more honestly inmates) require continuing care and who can now be”free.” He understands quite well that in earlier times people were admitted to facilities such as Roscommon for various reasons some of which had nothing to do with their mental states (pregnancy out of wedlock, sibling rivalry, etc). He is particularly perplexed by the case of Roseanne McNulty who is believed to be about 100 years old (Dr Grene is 65) and who has been at the facility for an undetermined period of time but at least longer than the 30 years that Dr Grene has been there. There is very little documentation of her history and Dr Grene is wary of confronting her directly about her past. He must satisfy himself whether Roseanne’s original confinement was justified for mental reasons in which case she will move to the new facility – or otherwise in which case she can be released (after so long? at her age? with no relatives? where?) He keeps a journal of the progress of his investigation. Unaware of the impending change, Roseanne has decided that she would like to make a written record of her life but only for herself so she keeps her pages hidden under the floorboards of her room.

So we follow these two alternating narrators and their secret scriptures. They seem to be describing two different lives for the same person. But of course they converge; just how is the substance of the book.

Besides writing novels, Sebastian Barry is a poet and a playwright. Certainly his skill as a poet is reflected in some beautiful, lyrical and thought-provoking passages on the natures of history, memory, and age. Were I more knowledgeable about dramatic structure and timing I would probably see that reflected in this work also. His portrayal of the Catholic clergy and its stranglehold over the Irish population is particularly effective and enraging.

After you have read the book you may wish to read an article in The Guardian by Barry describing how he came to write this book or a review with more detailed analysis.

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